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Ray Bradbury’s Neon Bewilderment

[1]2,400 words

“War is a bad thing, but peace can be a living horror.” — Ray Bradbury, “The Concrete Mixer”

I trust I am not alone among Counter-Currents readers in my appreciation for the late Ray Bradbury [2], my favorite author as a boy. Though Bradbury is often categorized as a science fiction author, his stories are just as suffused with magic and myth as they are with the futuristic technology that so repelled and terrified him.

A man of unmistakably conservative tendencies, Bradbury’s chief concern in depicting technologically-advanced societies was in uncovering the myriad ways in which such societies could warp the human soul — and indeed already had by the mid-twentieth century, when he wrote most of his classic works.

I recently revisited The Illustrated Man, his 1951 collection of short fiction, and found it as insightful as ever — even though his innate conservatism is often distorted by the false consciousness of Cold War anti-Communist liberalism.[1] [3] Most of the stories in the collection are still effective, however, with “The Veldt,” “Kaleidoscope,” “The Last Night of the World,” and “The Rocket” distinguishing themselves as particularly brilliant. Even those elements which come across as dated were quaintly entertaining, providing insights into how the future looked to a thoughtful inhabitant of the newly hegemonic, post-war American behemoth.

There is one story, however, which struck me completely differently than it had before as a result of my political coming-of-age. “The Concrete Mixer [4]” describes a Martian invasion of Earth as narrated by a Martian conscript, Ettil Vrye. Writing from this “Martian’s-eye view,” Bradbury imagines how the decadence of mid-twentieth century American might look to a completely naïve observer, and the result is acerbic and entertaining as well as eminently relevant to our current situation. The trends he observed have only deepened over the intervening 70 years. I highly recommend that you read it for yourself, but be warned that spoilers abound in what follows.

Though “The Concrete Mixer” does not describe much of life and culture on Ettil Vrye’s Mars, Bradbury establishes it as being a militaristic society in which it is unthinkable for a young man not to participate in their implicitly ethnic war against Earth. Vrye, however, initially resists his draft orders, though he eventually submits to conscription under threat of death. He does so neither out of moral compunction nor out of cowardice, but due to his conviction that the invasion is doomed to fail. Vrye has immersed himself in Earthling literature, in particular pulp-fiction stories about Martian invasions of Earth, and has noticed the ubiquity of the hero mythos in them: “Invariably, each invasion is thwarted by a young man, usually lean, usually Irish, usually alone, named Mick or Rick, or Jick or Bannon, who destroys the Martians.”[2] [5]

When the philistine military authorities fail to appreciate the importance of such cultural artifacts, Vrye goes on to explain just what this heroic tradition imparts to the Earthlings:

Morale. A big thing. The Earthmen know they can’t fail. It is in them like blood beating in their veins. They cannot fail. They will repel each invasion, no matter how well organized. Their youth of reading just such fiction as this has given them a faith we cannot equal.[3] [6]

This dovetails quite neatly with Bradbury’s preoccupation with censorship and the preservation of the classics, as he most famously elucidated in Fahrenheit 451. He understood that art and literature shape — often in subtler ways than we can appreciate — the collective imagination that gives birth to culture, and consequently, to politics. Once Ettil Vrye and the rest of the Martian army land on Earth, however, it emerges that a significant cultural shift has taken place there. The age of the hard-boiled swashbuckling Irish hero — Mick, Rick, Jick, Bannon — has come to an end, and an entirely new cultural outlook has sprung up in its place.

The first indication of this cultural shift occurs when the incoming Martian rockets are greeted by a radio transmission not from the President of the United States, but from the President of the Association of United American Producers. Sommers explains to the invaders:

Many years ago, we of Earth renounced war, destroyed our atom bombs. Now, unprepared as we are, there is nothing for us but to welcome you. The planet is yours. We ask only mercy from you good and merciful invaders.[4] [7]

It was at this point in the story that I first began to experience an eerie sense of familiarity; I even scribbled a single word in the margin — “Muslims?” — before remembering that this story was published in 1951, well before the mass importation of warlike foreign peoples into Europe had begun in earnest.

This sense only deepened when the Earthling welcome party offers three gifts to the invaders upon their arrival in California: a white woman, free tickets to the town’s cinemas (which have crowded out institutions of higher culture entirely), and enough beer and hot dogs that the Martians promptly become ill. I found myself wondering whether it was really so obvious in 1951 that this is how an invasion of the fat, complacent West would turn out.

Bradbury’s depiction of the American women of his era is delightfully vicious. The woman who offers herself up to the invading Martians, Miss America 1940, “who had come rushing up at the last minute as a substitute for Miss America 1966,”[5] [8] is unmistakably past her prime, and this aged, post-wall coquette’s attempt to offer herself up to the Martians is met with “confusion.”[6] [9]  The women of Earth are so debased that they greet the invading armies with shameless and immodest sexual advances that send the Martians scattering.[7] [10] To those of his compatriots who are in danger of being sexually tempted, Ettil has dire warnings:

They’ll fry you, bleach you, change you! Crack you, flake you away until you’re nothing but a husband, a working man, the one with the money who pays so they can come sit in there devouring their evil chocolates!

[11]

You can buy Kerry Bolton’s More Artists of the Right here. [12]

With “eyes shrewd and glassy, animal and sly, their mouths painted a neon red,” the harlots of Earth pose an existential threat to the Martians and their values. Writing home to his wife, Ettil deplores the fact that “the women of this evil planet are drowning us in a tide of banal sentimentality, misplaced romance, and one last fling before the makers of glycerin boil them down for usage.”[8] [13] I can’t help but imagine that unintentional messages of this sort were sent from Western Europe to Syria, Somalia, and all the other sundry lands from which the invading army of the mid-2010s was mustered. Nor can I find it within myself to condemn too vehemently a 35-year-old Moroccan “child refugee of the Syrian Civil War” who holds in contempt the vile, superficial emptiness of the whores who welcomed him — the descendants of those who once repelled his ancestors’ attempted invasions by force of arms.

As a result, the invading Martian army quickly falls into disarray of the irresistible pleasures on offer. Military discipline having collapsed, Ettil is free to wander through the California town and is horrified by what he sees there. He writes to his wife:

There is no Rick or Mick or Jick or Bannon — those clever fellows who save worlds. No. There are blond robots with pink rubber bodies, real, but somehow unreal, alive but somehow automatic in all responses, living in caves all their lives. Their derrieres are incredible in girth. Their eyes are fixed and motionless from an endless time of staring at picture screens.

It is clear to him that the Martian army is doomed to be destroyed, not by the heroism of some great man among their Earthling adversaries, but by degeneration. He realizes that

like a shovelful of seeds [dropped] into a large concrete mixer, nothing of us will survive. We will be killed not by the gun but by the glad-hand. We will be destroyed not by the rocket but by the automobile.[9] [14]

He then encounters an elderly missionary whose attempt to evangelize her tawdry faith only confuses him. He has a brief interaction with an Earthwoman prowling for a date, but she promptly accuses him of being a Communist when he betrays his lack of enthusiasm for automobiles and movies.

He finally finds himself in the company of a Hollywood executive — a Dutchman named R. R. Van Plank; curse those dastardly Dutch who control Hollywood! — who attempts, in the shallow patter of a crass nouveau riche, to hire Vrye as a consultant for a blockbuster film about life on Mars. Vrye finally has the opportunity to directly ask an Earthling why it is that the Martian invasion has been met with no resistance. Van Plank responds:

They sure grow ’em green on Mars, don’t they? You’re a naïve-type guy — I can see from way over here.[10] [15]

 Van Plank lays out the various opportunities for profit he sees in the invasion. For him, Mars is merely an economic zone full of potential consumers who will clamor for the spiritually-corrosive pleasures of Earth if only given the opportunity to indulge in them. Vrye finally understands the depth of his people’s peril. It is not only the invading Martian army that will be destroyed by corruption; the returning soldiers are sure to spread the contagion to the home front as well. Mars, an older, more austere civilization than Earth, will be rotted out from the inside.

The (somewhat unsubtly executed, but still effective) punchline comes when Vrye asks Van Plank what his initial, “R.,” stands for — and learns that it stands for Richard:

Ettil sighed and began to laugh and laugh . . . “So you’re Rick? Rick! So you’re Rick! . . . Oh, how different, how funny. No bulging muscles, no lean jaw, no gun. Only a wallet full of money and an emerald ring and a big middle! . . . I’ve wanted to meet you. You’re the man who’ll conquer Mars, with cocktail shakers and foot arches and poker chips and riding crops and leather boots and checkered caps and rim collinses.[11] [16]

Overcome with disgust, as well as the nausea of too many Manhattans, Ettil stumbles off into the night to consider his options: a blue pill and a black pill. Should he swallow his pride and accept the highly-paid job Rick has offered him? Or should he take advantage of the Martian army’s disarray, hijack a rocket, and return home, where he can insulate himself and his family from the coming madness — if only for a time? “But what about next year?” he wonders. He knows that the Martians back home will not remain protected the materialism and flash of Earthling culture for long.

Yes, he realizes, doom awaits them,

but not quite yet. In a few days he could be home. Tylla would be waiting with their son, and then for the last few years of gentle life he might sit with his wife in the blowing weather on the edge of the canal reading his good, gentle books, sipping a rare and light wine, talking and living out their short time until the neon bewilderment fell from the sky. And then perhaps he and Tylla might move into the blue mountains and hide for another year or two until the tourists came to snap their cameras and say how quaint things were.[12] [17]

Ettil Vrye is not even given the chance to do even this much, however. Bradbury throws him under the tires of a careening automobile driven by a posse of joy-riding teenagers, and brings his sad tale to an end.

For my part, I’ve launched my Toyota rocketship into the Mars of the American hinterlands. I’ve tossed my cellphone in the trash and undertaken a life of itinerant wage labor, seeking out the ever-shrinking untainted corners of my dying civilization. And yet, I would not consider my strategy to be one purely of retreat. In this story, Bradbury has included a hint as to how the struggle against Earthlingism (or what the youngsters today typically call globohomo) must be waged. As in all his work, Bradbury emphasizes that that it is our stories and myths that give us the fortitude to face up to the onslaught of evil that has beset us from the very beginning.

A comment made in response to my previous Counter-Currents essay questioned the value of pontificating think-pieces and self-indulgent dissident art contests, lamenting the fact that we youngsters can’t seem to remember where we left our jackboots. I’ll stand guilty as charged, I suppose. I own no jackboots, nor any clear idea of what direction I’d start marching in were I to don a pair. All I have is the consciousness of having been robbed of the cultural machinery which has historically made my people so formidable: our stories, our myths, and our high culture.

What I can do — what all of us can do — is engage with the high culture of the past: a revolutionary act, as Jonathan Bowden put it. What we can do is blow with all our collective might on the embers of that dying fire so that it might be preserved and one day restored to its former glory. We can fight for the stories than ennoble us by hearing them retold, and by telling them to others who have never heard them. Perhaps the Muse will even come upon a few of us so that we might weave the gossamer lies that will inspire some of our people to believe in heroes again — in Mick, Rick,  and Jick.

Believing in the possibility of heroism is the first step in becoming heroes ourselves. And as I aimlessly drift about in those limins that are as yet free from the contagion, every word I write will be composed with that goal in mind — although I will always write with one eye on the horizon, as I await the arrival of neon bewilderment from the sky.

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Notes

[1] [18] For example, see “Zero Hour,” which is a very well-crafted propaganda piece about the Communist subversion of American youth, or “The Other Foot,” which describes a prosperous society of Negroes on Mars (you see, they were held back on Earth from achieving their true potential by segregation and white racial violence) who must decide how they will treat the white refugees of a post-apocalyptic Earth.

[2] [19] Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man, 13th edition (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1969), p. 141.

[3] [20] Ibid.

[4] [21] Ibid., p. 144.

[5] [22] Ibid.

[6] [23] Ibid., p. 145.

[7] [24] Ibid., p. 147.

[8] [25] Ibid., p. 150.

[9] [26] Ibid.

[10] [27] Ibid., p. 156.

[11] [28] Ibid., p. 154.

[12] [29] Ibid., p. 155.